TAMPA — B.J. Star went by Barbara in those days. She was a young Detroit police officer with a college degree but no good answer when bosses asked her why she wanted promotions. Those jobs belonged to the men, dear.
Then in 1974 she went to a convention of the National Organization for Women. Hundreds of women were there, abuzz about workplace discrimination, abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment.
She later learned phrases like "domestic violence" and "equal pay for equal work." She went to law school. She dropped her first name for her initials so male lawyers wouldn't ignore her mail. B.J. Star felt as if she had woken up.
Nearly 40 years later, Star, 61, president of NOW's West Pinellas chapter, says she and other leaders are preparing to pass the torch to younger women.
But do younger women want it?
That question is a central one as the nation's largest feminist organization opens its national convention in Tampa today with nearly 600 people expected to attend. The convention's theme? "Daring to Dream: Building a Feminist Future."
NOW officials say they know they need new blood to keep the organization alive and relevant. They point to their task force on young women, their bloggers and their Facebook page, their lineup of young speakers and their choice of this year's convention site: The 247-room Embassy Suites Tampa near the University of South Florida.
The Tampa chapter is even paying the registration fees — and a year's membership — for about 30 USF students and a dozen University of Central Florida students.
The liberal organization faces the recruiting challenges as voters, including those in Florida, have put more conservative politicians in office in the past two years, many opposed to abortion.
But longtime NOW activists say the timing couldn't be better because they think a backlash from younger women is coming, particularly against new abortion restrictions passed by Florida and other states.
"We are slowly losing the things we had to work for," said Doris Rosen, 69, who heads the Pasco chapter. "We have to make them realize the fight is not over."
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NOW president Terry O'Neill took the helm in 2009 at age 56. Her competition was a 33-year-old woman. That age difference was framed as the old guard versus fresh newcomer, but O'Neill said the issue was overblown.
She said NOW's paid membership numbers have stayed roughly level, about 500,000, over the last 15 years and are actually up from about three years ago.
"It's roaring back, and I think part of the reason it's roaring back is precisely because women's rights are being so attacked," said O'Neill, citing the abortion restrictions and Medicare cuts that disproportionately affect women. "It's been called the war on women and that is not an exaggeration."
But local chapters are small enough to meet at Wings N Things and a Chinese buffet, and the national organization's political action committee has watched its fundraising drop off over the past 15 years from $320,000 in 1994 to $99,510 in 2010.
Part of NOW's challenge is to recruit young feminists who "resist labels" and may not feel allegiance to one cause, said Deborah Siegel, author of Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild.
"I think younger feminists are less likely to join organizations than older feminists, maybe, in part because (of) the allegiances to different movements they have," she said. No surprise that the younger generation of feminists engage one another online, through cultural and political critiques on websites such as feministing.com, said Janet Jakobsen, director of Barnard Center for Research on Women at Barnard College in New York.
If they're engaging each other online, do they need a more traditional organization like NOW?
At 42, Siegel is proud to call herself a feminist and works with a number of women's groups. But even she isn't a member of NOW. Why?
"That's a good question. ... I believe in everything they stand for. I don't know," she said. "A lot of what captures my radar is what's been circulated by younger feminists online."
Mia Lawrie, a 20-year-old USF student, recently started attending NOW chapter meetings. She said she's still trying to learn, and the older women have helped her fill in the gaps.
"I see myself as in debt to them and the work that they've done," said Lawrie, who plans to go to medical school and practice obstetrics and gynecology.
A USF women and gender studies major, she didn't have the vivid awakening that B.J. Star did. She never talked about feminism growing up. But looking back, she said, she was a budding feminist.
She was more Xena than Disney princess. And she says she can remember hearing people say that women belonged in the kitchen. That's where her single mother was — in between the two jobs she worked.
That's what the long-timers like Eleanor Cecil, a board member for NOW's Tampa chapter, call "consciousness raising."
"Our experience is that most people aren't aware of how some of the issues affect them," said Cecil, 68.
Diana Stevens, a board member for the Tampa chapter, said the conference should lead to discussions that make the organization more effective and visible.
Younger women well-versed in using social media can help them do that. More young women are busy, but she hopes the enthusiasm at the conference will help women recognize how important their involvement is.
"Young women say what good is it to go out and participate in a rally?' " said Stevens. "Well, there's a lot of good in a rally."
Mary Glenney, the co-host of the Women's Show on WMNF 88.5, said younger women have as much to fight for as her generation did. She said she didn't see feminism, or the organizations like NOW that support it, fading any time soon. "I wish it were passe," she said. "I wish we didn't have to fight so hard."
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